“Walking is man’s best medicine.”
When we are suffering, exercise is possibly one of the last things we feel like doing. Just surviving the day can feel like an impossible task, and it doesn’t help that the stereotypes associated with working out (torturous P.E. classes, unrelatable gym rats, and superhuman Olympians to name a few) are so de-motivating. It can be easier to simply decide we are not the kind of person who enjoys regular exercise. According to current research however, working out is one of the fastest ways we can combat mental ill-health. The mind and body are intimately linked, with what affects one influencing the other. When something makes us extremely anxious for instance, we are more susceptible to physical sickness. The reverse relationship is also true.
Studies on human as well as animal subjects have shown that the benefits of exercise include but are not limited to: increased productivity and energy, the promotion of neurogenesis, reduced stress and the creation of healthier sleeping patterns. Almost immediately physical activity stimulates the production of “reward” chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, to create a natural high which adds up to long-term mood improvement. Research has suggested that high intensity exercise may help sufferers of panic attacks to cope when they occur, by forming positive associations with symptoms like elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating and dry mouth. It has also been shown to help reduce cognitive deficits common to illnesses like ADHD and Schizophrenia, such as lack of concentration and short-term memory loss. As we inch toward a better understanding of mental illnesses and how to live with them, new findings about the relationship between mental and physical health are being published all the time. Just how much and what type of exercise is the most impactful are yet to be determined, although there are benefits to even the gentlest forms.
To put it simply, there is ample evidence to conclude that moderate exercise is just as important for the mind as it is for the body. It is common knowledge however that what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us is rarely the most important factor in making decisions. We’re only human after all, often focused on the short-term experience rather than long-term gains. Conversely, those that need exercise the most are less likely to regularly take part. Like a lot of potential weapons in the fight against mental illness and suicide (such as medication or therapy), practical and emotional barriers do exist. Although solutions like free community classes and YouTube videos can address financial issues, the fear associated with trying something new can be the greatest obstacle.
As cheesy as it sounds, the first yoga class I took changed the way I view the world. In a group setting where I had no choice but to keep moving and focusing on the poses, I was completely distracted from thinking about my anxieties. I had become accustomed to a constant heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach, a numbness in my hands and face and a fog over my brain that made it near impossible to work or study. This made it all the more shocking when I felt light, clear-headed and alive at the end of the class. For a little while after the class at least, I felt happy. Experiencing such a stark contrast to the usual dread made me question my previous conviction that I would always be depressed and opened a path towards enjoying life again. Now when I feel like my options are closing in I know it’s time to lift some weights or head to a dance class no matter how pointless it seems and how much I would rather just go to bed.
One of the most amazing benefits of exercise is that it’s one of the easiest forms of guaranteed achievement we can offer ourselves. No matter how bad today is, we have an opportunity to feel a sense of progress and pride. No matter what’s going on in our lives (bad relationships, fighting with parents, failing school, unemployment…) we can have control over one little thing. Doing twenty push ups isn’t going to fix everything, or maybe even anything. It is not a Band-Aid for other issues that need to be addressed, or a substitute for the therapy, support, concrete needs or medical treatment we might require to get better. But the ability many of us hold within ourselves to produce a natural stress relief, channel negative energy into productivity and refresh the mind is something we should consider learning to take advantage of more often.
Sharma A., Maadan V. & Petty F. Exercise for mental health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006; 8(2): 106. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
Weir, Kirsten. The Exercise Effect. Monitor on Psychology. December 2011, Vol 42, No. 11 http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise.aspx